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Issue #1727      April 20, 2016


A common struggle

Twenty-five years ago, on April 15, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991) exposed the systemic disadvantage and institutional racism that drove the high rates of imprisonment and subsequently, the high number of deaths in custody of Aboriginal people in Australia.

Key among the Commission’s recommendations were those aimed at reducing Indigenous incarceration – to make prison “a measure of last resort” and break the vicious cycle of criminalisation and imprisonment that led to deaths in custody.

The Commission concluded that governments had to genuinely engage with Indigenous Australians to resolve this matter in any meaningful way. The report’s thrust was:

“Directed towards empowerment of Aboriginal societies on the basis of their deeply held desire, their demonstrated capacity, their democratic right to exercise … maximum control over their lives and communities … such empowerment requires that the broader society must make material assistance available to make good past deprivations and … approach the relationship with Aboriginal society on the basis of the principles of self-determination…”

Yet, Indigenous incarceration in Australian prisons have grown from 14 percent of total in 1991 to 27 percent in 2015. More than 50 percent of juveniles in detention are Aboriginal and one in three women prisoners are Aboriginal.

Indigenous Australians in 1991 were 7 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians; now they are 13 times more likely to end up in custody and jail.

While there were 99 deaths in custody in the decade before the Royal commission report, in the 25 years since there have been more than 450.

Far from being a turning point, the 1991 Royal Commission report has merely become a marker from which to measure the extent of further deterioration of Indigenous Australia’s relationship with mainstream society in Australia.

Even the simplest of recommended reforms, a custody notification service where police inform a local Aboriginal legal service that they have taken an Indigenous person into custody, was introduced by only one state, New South Wales, in 2007.

Yet Australian federal governments have undermined this reform since 2012 by substantially cutting funds.

Indigenous Australians have faced systemic disadvantage and institutional racism from the time of colonisation in 1788 and will continue to do so until the political status of First Nations peoples within the Australian nation state has been formally resolved, with their full engagement.

State and territory governments are implementing criminal justice policies driven by a law and order, get tough on crime agenda that puts more people than ever in jail.

Australian government closure by stealth of scores of remote Aboriginal communities is rightly seen by many Indigenous people as a land grab on behalf of mining interests.

Pat Dodson, a Yawuru man from Broome, and a member of the 1991 Royal Commission recently stated, “On any measure the current incarceration is a complete and utter disgrace … accepting it permits the criminal justice system to continue to suck us up like a vacuum cleaner and deposit us like waste in custodial institutions. I would hope we are better than that … we must be better than that – there is no choice here...”

The Communist Party of Australia works for unity in action to be built between Aboriginal, Islander and non-Indigenous Australians. We have a common struggle. As Karl Marx wrote: “Labour in the white skin can never be free while labour in the black skin is in chains.”

Next article – The Perth Declaration: A Better World is Possible

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